Today marks the release date for singer/songwriter, punk-cabaret chanteuse and aesthetic workaholic AMANDA PALMER’s new solo album, Theatre Is Evil. With the backing of her wicked trio the Grand Theft Orchestra and the expertise of producer John Congleton, Palmer has created a bombastic vision that jumps over the top rope of the pretentiousness ring while cutting to a listener’s core like a psychic straightrazor. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll play air guitar. But you definitely won’t be bored.
When Jason Pettigrew caught up with Palmer for this interview, she was reclining on the campus of New York’s Bard College with her husband Neil Gaiman, prior to rehearsing the GTO band in front of “a test audience of tripping college students.”
Interview: Jason Pettigrew
How are you?
I am actually really fucking awesome at the moment. You could not have caught me at a more idyllic time. I just got pushed for four minutes on a swing by Neil Gaiman, and now I’m lying in the grass with him.
Not bad. Let me try to bring you down. Tell me about your day. What time did you wake up?
I don’t have an average day, so that’s impossible. I’ve been doing promo touring all summer, and I’m now holed up at Bard College for the next two weeks to rehearse the giant, epic Theatre Is Evil world tour, which has enough crazy, weird live elements that we actually needed two weeks to build and rehearse with a test audience.
Wait, a test audience?
A test audience of tripping college students.
I was wondering how much of your day is made up of fan interaction and business logistics versus actual Amanda Palmer personal time.
It’s pretty fucking boring. There’s not usually more than an hour in my life that goes by where I don’t check my Twitter feed, and one could argue about the health of that. [Laughs.] It’s certainly good for business. And, you know, somewhere in there, I also have to figure out how to have friendships and relationships and maintain a marriage. And I text a lot. I’ve always been the kind of person who’s really enjoyed multi-tasking, and I’m not good doing a single task for an hour. I’m pretty good at sitting down and doing six tasks for an hour.
So there’s really no most exhausting part of it. You just look at it all as “life.”
I look at my life as one giant to-do list, and it includes: find love, have relationships, approve merchandise. They’re all kind of there in one giant pile and I prioritize on the fly, much to the dismay of the people I love.
Does it ever become so encumbering that it makes you think, “Why didn’t I go to med school or learn how to fix BMWs?”
No. I just don’t think I’d be happy. I think the way my life works now is the kind of logical extension of the life I was creating for myself when I was a kid, a teenager and then a college student: I’ve wanted to do 15 artistic projects at one time, and I didn’t want anyone to fucking tell me how to do them. I think being a rockstar was the easiest container to pursue to do all the things I wanted to. Theater, film, music and performance art all kind of fall under the umbrella of rock ’n’ roll. I picked up on that from an early age because I grew up doing community theatre and watching MTV, and given those ingredients, all signs pointed towards a life in rock ’n’ roll. You’ll have the largest umbrella under which to create it, and I’d say I deliberately chose that over going into theater, which actually seemed really restrictive.
I did not know that.
Well, now you fucking know!
I got some science dropped on me.
My band is actually an illusion. What I’m actually doing is a very large, back-porch production of Fiddler On The Roof.
I was actually kind of hoping for Man Of La Mancha. Theatre Is Evil is so great, I’m never going to listen to Who Killed Amanda Palmer ever again. The level of empathy coming from the characters on this record is pretty detailed. Is there a part of you in all of these songs? Or are they serious third-party connections or composites?
No. This record is pretty much all me with very few exceptions. One really important exception being “The Bed Song.” That is clearly not a life I have lived, but that’s also clearly a fictional song, because it goes from beginning to end: I won’t have the perspective of somebody at the end of their life until I’m at the end of my life. So that is the big exception. All the rest of these songs are straight from the emotional debris pile of the last five years.
Is the message of “Trout Heart Replica” you always hurt the ones you love, so let’s do it anyway?
Oh, God. I don’t think that song has a message. I’m not sure. I mean, it’s actually more literal than you might think. I actually wrote that song more or less in one… Hold on a second, he’s… [Pause. To Gaiman.] I love you. There goes Neil Gaiman.
Bye, Neil. He’s bored.
He was there [when that song was written]. “Trout Heart” was the big, brutal, breakup song of my last huge breakup, and I was the breaker-upper. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever gone through. I was on tour, and I was going through Neil’s part of the world and my whole touring crew went to visit him, because we had collaborated on the Who Killed Amanda Palmer book, but it was before we had a budding romance.
Neil took me and some of my touring crew up to this trout farm to get fish for dinner—it was a 15-mile drive from his house in the middle of fucking nowhere in snow-covered Wisconsin. I was in the throes, like the deep painful throes of this breakup. We went to the trout farm and watched these fish get clubbed and gutted. That would have been fine. I mean, I’ve seen it before, and I actually think it’s wise to watch where your food is coming from, so you can digest it to see the karma of it.
There was this moment. I was standing there with Neil and Zoë Keating, my touring cellist, and the guy who was gutting the fish turned around with a beating heart in his hand and said, “Oh, yeah. This sometimes happens. Sometimes you take the heart out and it just keeps going.” And I just lost it. Tears just started streaming down my face, and Zoë and I were just standing there looking. And the guy let the heart beat in his hand for, maybe five or 10 seconds, and then tossed it onto the big, metal counter and walked out of the room, and it kept going for, like, a minute-and-a-half. It wouldn’t stop pulsing. We just kept looking at each other, saying, “We can’t believe this is happening. How is this happening? It’s not attached to a fish. It’s just beating. It’s just got a life of its own.” And in that moment, my deep, dark emotional self, and my really hyper-intellectual songwriter were doing psychic fucking battle with each other, because my intellectual self was like, “Oh, this is really fantastic imagery for a song…” and meanwhile, I was dying inside. Neil was watching this whole thing go down too, and the three of us joked in the car home that we all had the same song idea.
And it has nothing to do with Captain Beefheart?
No, but the minute I thought “trout,” I was like, “Oh, fucking Trout Mask Replica. It’s too perfect.” Because it works on its own level to say “Trout Heart Replica” and not know that it’s a Captain Beefheart reference. It doesn’t ruin the title. It’s still a fantastic title with its own huge meaning.